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News & Advice

Simon Calder: Flying by numbers: MEB3, petits fours, World's 5-star airline

The man who pays his way

The boss of a young, rapidly expanding airline tells his rivals: "Many of you may think I am a pain in the arse." He describes the EU's emissions trading scheme as "crap", derides US airline bankruptcy legislation as "this famous Chapter 11 washing machine" and speculates that UK politicians who reject growth at Heathrow are "smelling glue".

Yet the chief executive in question may not be the one who springs immediately to mind. Michael O'Leary, who runs Ryanair, was notable by his absence from Wednesday's confrontation between the new and old guard of aviation at a lunch in London. The industry gathered for the Aviation Club lunch to listen to Akbar Al Baker, chief executive of Qatar Airways.

Mr Al Baker is a slight man with a commanding demeanour: "I drive a hard bargain to get what I want," he says. The airline he has created in the past 15 years can fly you via its Doha hub from London to Lagos or from Manchester to Melbourne. Qatar Airways has been rated best carrier in the world for the past two years by Skytrax.

Its boast, "World's 5-star airline", devoid of the definite article, is world's most irritating slogan. But it comprises one-third of the MEB3 ("Middle East Big 3"), alongside Etihad and Emirates – the trio that represent the new world of flying.

"The unions have taken over airlines in Europe," Mr Al Baker announced. As the assembled dignitaries, representing everyone from Alitalia to Iberia, choked on their petits fours, he added: "The Europeans have lost their focus." In their place, the Gulf carriers are ascendant.

Plane swotting

To witness the scale of their ambitions, look no further than the order books at Boeing and Airbus. At present, Qatar Airways is much smaller than British Airways – but not for long. This week BA announced that work has finally begun on the first of its long-overdue Boeing 787 "Dreamliners". It has 24 of the new long-haul jets on order, which should start arriving next May. But Qatar Airways has ordered 60 of the planes, and will launch the first between Heathrow and its hub in Doha by the end of this year.

BA is also in the queue for a dozen Airbus A380 "Superjumbos", a couple more firm orders than both Qatar Airways and its Abu Dhabi-based rival, Etihad. Yet down the coast in Dubai, Emirates already has 26 flying and an astonishing 64 more on order – containing, between them, almost as many seats as the Emirates football stadium in north London.

Qatar Airways has deep pockets and big ambitions. "Last year we took delivery of a new aircraft every 18 days," said Mr Al Baker. "This year it is every 15 days. Next year it will be every 12 days." He is the launch customer for the new Airbus A350, with a cool 80 on order.

Unfair, cry rivals. Mr Al Baker said European airlines had "falsely accused" Middle East airlines of using government petro-dollars to finance growth. But, he said: "The notion that Gulf carriers are the black sheep of the airline industry is far from reality."

If you can't beat 'em

A decade ago, the typical British traveller to Australia would fly on BA, Qantas or an Asian airline such as Singapore or Cathay Pacific. Today, the default is one of the Middle East Big 3. Emirates alone offers more flights from its Dubai hub to Australia in a day than BA can manage in a week, with connections from six UK airports. Two weeks from now, Adelaide becomes the fifth Australian city (after Perth, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne) to gain a non-stop link from the Gulf: see pages 10-11 for our new 48 Hours in South Australia's capital.

Qantas has married its fortunes with Emirates to "code-share" between Sydney and London, refuelling in Dubai rather than Singapore. Air France/KLM has teamed up with Etihad of Abu Dhabi. Qatar Airways is joining the Oneworld alliance. Or, given the continental drift that is transforming aviation, is Oneworld joining Qatar Airways, I wondered? "We never go to parties uninvited," Mr Al Baker told me.

The party moves to Doha in 2022 for what will be the strangest World Cup in footballing history. Mr Al Baker is likely still to be in charge. "I want to do what is best for my airline, my ruler – his highness the Emir – for my country and, believe it or not, for the benefit of our industry."

Not all the assembled lunch guests looked convinced. But for travellers, if not employees of rival airlines, his ambitious plans will help to constrain fares and expand horizons.